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Blu-ray review: ‘D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln’ (1930)

Dennis King Published: December 6, 2012

While Steven Spielberg’s stately “Lincoln” is much on the minds of film and history buffs at the moment, it’s a canny move for Kino to release its spiffed-up Blu-ray edition of “D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln.”

Made in 1930, at the tail end of Griffth’s prolific and masterly career as a silent-film pioneer, this overstuffed cinema biography of The Great Emancipator is a wobbly, episodic effort notable mainly for marking Griffth’s halting transition to talkies.

Given vast changes in technology and cultural attitudes, it certainly isn’t fair to compare this dated effort with Spielberg’s brilliantly textured saga. But the quaint, old-school look of Griffith’s film pales particularly in proximity to the sepia-toned artfulness of Spielberg’s. And the brilliant, restrained naturalism of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance gives much more breadth and depth to Lincoln than did Walter Huston’s more stylized, melodramatic portrayal.

Griffith’s narrative (scripted by John Considine Jr., Garrit Lloyd and Stephen Vincent Benet, famed for the book-length abolitionist poem “John Brown’s Body”) traces Lincoln’s life from his log-cabin birth through his itinerate lawyering in Illinois to the Civil War-torn White house and his tragic death. Along the way, there are episodes touching on his first love, Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel), who died of typhoid, and his eventual, seemingly reluctant marriage to social climber Mary Todd (Kay Hammond).

Many of the intimate scenes seem rushed and perfunctory. His election as President is covered in a strangely off-handed scene.

Still, Griffith was Griffith, and his genius comes through in several long-shot, single-take scenarios. He seems to be at his best when the screen is jam-packed with people – Union soldiers hustling into battle with Confederate forces, the ebb and flow of battlefield movements or slave-ship passengers crammed into stifling quarters.

Houston (a Hollywood veteran known for “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and later “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) delivers a believably tortured and conflicted performance, especially when Lincoln is plunged into the daily horrors of the Civil War. But if you had to rank on-screen Lincolns, he’s likely come in a distant third to Day-Lewis and Henry Fonda (1939’s “Young Mr. Lincoln”).

More quaint historical relic than grand cinema spectacle (although the trailblazing director certainly produced his share of those), “D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln” is worthy for showing the great filmmaker at his sunset (this was his next to last film). Flashes of brilliance are there, but on the whole the enterprise feels tired.

Bonus extras on Kino’s Blu-ray include two short segments featuring conversations between Houston and Griffith, in which Griffith underscores some of the troubling sentiments about the KKK and the Civil War that have long tarnished his 1915 masterwork, “The Birth of a Nation.”

- Dennis King